Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

One Read, Another One Beckons. What Could Be Simpler? Or So You’d Think

It never gets old: I still get a thrill out of finishing one book, and then walking over to my book shelves to pick out the next one to be read.  There are many unread tomes in there; who knows what pleasures lurk in them, waiting to be delved into, savored, and hopefully, treasured for a while?

The selection process is always, though, a little anxiety-ridden. Part of the burden of being an academic is that despite my best intentions, I often find myself making a distinction between reading for ‘pleasure’ and reading for ‘work’: some books are part of my supposed ‘research’, while others are seem like merely dilettantish indulgences. This leads, unfortunately, to a tension: do I have time to spare for ‘light’ reading when so much else remains to be read in domains that are supposedly my central intellectual passion? Am I slacking off by diverting my attention elsewhere? (In my graduate school days, I remember many fellow students saying they had stopped reading fiction for this reason.)

This is a silly distinction, of course, precisely because the books I read that are not part of any academic project of mine still inform my work: they enable the formation and appreciation of different perspectives and approaches to material ostensibly subject to paradigmatic readings. More to the point, it seems like I have imposed some horribly spartan vision of life upon myself, an austerity that seems impoverished more than anything else.

But having said that, another related burden of the academic life imposes itself. Does my reading, the part that isn’t within the ambit of an ongoing intellectual project, have to possess a certain minimal gravitas? Or can I slack off a bit, perhaps go a little ‘pop’? I suspect the same response as above holds.

These questions answered, I can move on to the next round. What comes next? Books that have been virgin for all too long? I can see unread books on my shelf dating back to purchases made in 1998. Are there books that are losing their topicality? I see an unread book on Chechnya in there. Yup, one of the 1998 ones. Should I read a book that will form an organic connection with the one I’ve just finished? This sort of selection happens quite naturally when, for lack of a better description, I find myself ‘going through a phase.’ Sometimes, I am keen to get rid of a book from my shelf because it is falling apart or because it wasn’t destined to be a long-term resident anyway. Here, I haven’t lost my desire to read it, but I am not interested in holding on to it for too long. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to read it and pass it back into circulation. Provided, of course, that it can undergo such a journey. Many books that I have picked up from garage sales or from Brooklyn-stoop-giveaways fall into this category.

And then, finally, sadly, once in a while, I come across a book that I realize I will never read; its time has passed, my interests have changed, and I cannot foresee my inclinations turning toward it ever again. Then, I take it down, set it aside ruefully, consoling myself that a slot has opened up for a new resident of my bookish world.